Friday, May 26, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I found the music choice for Mass Effect: Andromeda's launch trailer -- Human by Rag'n'Bone Man -- to be highly amusing. With early access and review copies having already been around awhile to showcase the game's lack of quality, to me the trailer felt like BioWare Montreal saying they had tried their best and apologizing the state MEA would come out.

"I'm only human
I make mistakes
I'm only human
That's all it takes
To put the blame on me
Don't put the blame on me"

Released before finished

It is not hard to find a bug or an unpolished feature in MEA. I learned after a while not to expect anything to work as intended. However, apart from two random game crashes, I did not really encounter progress stopping bugs. BioWare probably managed to complete their first round of bug-fixing triage before the release.

I can imagine them going over the list their quality assurance team had gathered:
"Okay, next we have crew members occasionally jumping through the ship's hull into space."
"Does it crash the game?"
"Let's skip it for now."

I think it is very telling of the need for polish that no one evidently even bothered to check if the Nomad's (the new ground vehicle) tracks match the tire tread pattern -- which they do not for they are backwards. I think the fault is on the vehicle, as the tires would probably give more traction were they mounted the other way around, which in turn would make them match the tracks.

Ugly faces

It was unfortunate for BioWare that many things badly needing more work are so visual in nature, such as character facial animations. Addison's "my face is tired" line became a meme very quickly and was being repeated endlessly whenever Andromeda was mentioned. I guess it works as a fair warning for potential customers.

There is also the thing how goofy the default female player character, Sara Ryder, looks -- with and without animation. Unlike with her twin brother, Scott, it is really hard to see the resemblance between Sara and her face model. I hear the post-release patches have beautified her face, though.

About all of the preset faces for Sara also look outright ugly. You can make a passable one yourself in the character creator (at least until the game tries to put an expression on it) but the problem is you have to choose one of the presets as your base whose eye and nose shape, among other things, you are then stuck with. And if your custom face deviates a lot from the preset, the siblings' father, Alec Ryder, will look nothing like your character as he is based on the unedited base.

All games have bugs. And even if MEA has more of them than one should expect from a big developer, it is only a small factor in why I did not like the game much. Why the game is mediocre in my opinion comes more down to the following three main points: 1) it lacks coherent structure, 2) too many things are designed to simply waste players' time, and 3) streamlining single player combat to match multiplayer was unnecessary.

A return to its roots

It is odd they intentionally chose Mass Effect 1 as their starting point for Andromeda. Well, I know the reason was to have a better framework for exploration. But I am fairly certain that more people found and learned to love the series from the second game onwards. I have seen many lamenting they cannot get into the first one due to multiple reasons. Thus one would think that continuing with the structure of Mass Effect 2 or 3 would have been a more safe bet. That a game with nothing but linear missions and clear goals would be an easier sell.

But no, BioWare decided to bring back landing on open map planets, because surely everyone absolutely loved the barren wastelands in ME1. I mean, they were neat places to visit for pretty skyboxes but gameplay-wise they were boring. Driving around the uneven terrain with the jumpy Mako was hardly a great experience.

Now, MEA did improve this -- the planet surfaces are much more detailed, they are filled with quests, and the Nomad controls better than the Mako. I wish the car would not mysteriously lose all momentum when going up a small slope on standard drive, though. The 6-wheel drive will traverse over hills without issues but has so much lower top speed.

Filler, copy-pasted content

The quests are not exactly exciting either. BioWare claimed they took lessons from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It mostly shows in some side quests having a twist but in general they do not really get to the same level. After they ran out of better ideas, BioWare added a load of absolute garbage to bring the total possible playtime per planet up to some satisfactory number.

BioWare also thought they had to include their own detective mode/witcher sense/whatever that many big titles have these days in the form of a scanner from Ryder's omni-tool. Using it is mostly just a huge-ass chore. In addition to its usage for quests, you have to scan every piece of tech, enemy, and plant to get research points for the game's crafting system.

All quests on a planet also contribute to its viability meter for settling. TotalBiscuit thought in his impressions video that it adds a sense of purpose, an overhead goal one wants to work towards. To me it feels they merely reduced everything to arbitrary numbers. It is exactly like the total military strength value in ME3 -- soulless gamification.

And it is the same shit on every planet. Eos, Voeld, Kadara, and Elaaden all have a bigger problem to solve before you can found an outpost, a terraforming vault that needs to be visited to neutralize the planet's environmental hazard, and a Remnant architect to be fought. Every architect is also the exact same thing -- a Matrix worm that takes an awful lot of shooting to bring down. You even get one in the final boss fight. How fucking boring is that?

Insulting and time-wasting features

And speaking of boring, mining in MEA is the very definition of it. You find minerals in space and as small deposits on planets, but that clearly was not enough and thus planets also have nodes that you scan with the Nomad. It is identical to ME2's system but instead of scanning a planet from the orbit, you drive around in circles on the planet surface.

It is extremely dull but quickly becomes very annoying too because the helpful artificial intelligence that partly lives inside Ryder -- Simulated Adaptive Matrix or SAM for short -- will not shut up. Driving in node proximity will always trigger SAM's "Pathfinder, this area can be mined for resources." and "You can extract minerals via your mining interface." lines. And mining is the not the only thing SAM likes to annoy you with.

Mass Effect 1 had a simple hazard bar on the screen that started increasing when you exited the Mako on cold, hot, or poisonous planets. It was quite enough -- I do not recall ever dying to such environmental hazard. But in MEA, in addition to having life support level on the screen, SAM likes to announce every time temperature gets too high, too low, or returns to tolerable levels even when you are inside the Nomad. It gets unbearably obnoxious on Voeld and Elaaden. It is hard to believe something like that made it to the release version. It also interrupts squad mate banter, which a very bad thing in a Mass Effect game.

Another egregious time-waster is space travel. Instead of the original trilogy's 2D planes, star systems in MEA are fully realized 3D spaces you travel viewed from first person on your ship's bridge. The vistas are undeniably pretty but it takes about 20 seconds to get from planet to planet. I got enough of it in the first star system already.

Landing on planets and taking off will get on one's nerves as well. While you had to endure unskippable docking cutscenes in the previous games too, they were nearly not as frequent. Andromeda makes you land and take off all the damn time.

AAA scenery

Pretty the game is, though. Powered by Frostbite 3, MEA is an excellent title to utilize Nvidia Ansel for gorgeous screenshots. Though after I rebound dash to left Alt, taking screenshots where my character would stand still became impossible due to Ansel's hotkey combo being Alt F2. Thus I ended up still using Fraps too.

The looks apparently also come with a cost -- I found the game to be rather demanding for my hardware. I ended up playing with a mix of Medium and High settings. And even then, some places (like Nexus docks) were merciless for framerate. I also finally understood what people mean with FXAA making games look like someone had smeared vaseline on the screen when I tried it instead of the better looking (and more taxing?) Temporal AA.

I would have preferred music to be as good as the visuals. It is way too subtle and forgettable -- too much like a movie's soundtrack. In combat it gets more exciting but it is still everything but memorable. I can only recall the menu track, A Better Beginning. But even that one takes more than 2 minutes to get going from the shy starting notes.

Familiar but overly streamlined combat

I started MEA on Insanity difficulty, thinking it would be the same as ME3. Instead, the challenge I faced was similar to ME1's. I do not know if enemies have a similar 50% damage reduction in this game but it was apparent that the starter weapons were not up to par. It also did not help that MEA does not allow you to freely save in missions and you instead have to rely on checkpoints.

I did eventually beat the prologue mission on Insanity after I discovered how effective melee was compared to the guns. But after it I turned the difficulty down to Normal, although Hardcore would have probably been a better fit for me.

I suppose the idea behind removing the pausing command HUD was to make combat to be always non-stop action (like in MP). As a result you cannot control your squad mates' power-use and you only get 3 active ones yourself because controllers do not have buttons for more. 3 powers would have been fine if I had been also able to map squad mate powers to hotkeys for my use. But as it is, you can only tell your squad mates to go somewhere or attack something, which is not very effective.

The lack of variation, and the stupid number of encounters due to the open-world nature of the game, cause combat to become monotonous. It is fun but always the same. You can have different power sets to switch to, but doing so puts powers on a long cooldown, which makes it unpractical in the heat of combat.

Classes for the protagonist got removed as well and instead appear as profiles that rank up as you put spend points on powers. For example, the sentinel profile gains ranks when you put points into Biotic and Tech powers.

Each profile gives bonuses when active. I played through the majority of the game with sentinel as my active profile. Its unique bonus is boost to power combos. While combos in single player were as anemic as they were in multiplayer prior to 1.06, a lot more things buff them and make them viable -- at least on Normal difficulty.

As my powers I had Energy Drain to be used against shields, Incinerate against armor and health, and Charge for healing and because it is awesome. You can even charge enemies in the air as you are not glued to the ground. (As expected from an open-world game once again.)

I was quite unhappy BioWare changed the sound effects of familiar powers and guns. I missed the "wubs" of biotic powers in particular. The new ones, while all right and uniform, just do not have the same uniqueness to them.

Mind-boggling changes to old stuff

The selection of powers and old weapons also has some oddities. Excluding Warp was weird considering it had been in the series since ME1. I can see why they dropped the common Shuriken SMG, though. Its appearance being identical to the Predator pistol was a good reason to move the Tempest from the uncommons to replace it. However, since some writer decided that your ship can absolutely have no other name than Tempest, the SMG got renamed to Charger to avoid confusion. Seriously, BioWare?

Dumb too is how the iconic Claymore shotgun (and the Graal) got left in The Milky Way. Instead the Krogan suddenly have a new shotgun called Ruzad, which seems to play too much alike the Asari shotgun, Disciple. Ruzard's only unique trait is its innate melee damage bonus.

On a second thought, the Claymore with its lengthy reload time probably would not have been as great in MEA -- and I forgot to mention this in my multiplayer post -- because reload canceling is not a thing anymore. Instead of being able to cut reloading animations in half with another action, such as by using a power, you always have to sit through the whole thing. It is not as relevant in single player but it annoyed me nonetheless.

They really should have kept the mechanic. People can play fine without it but those seeking to improve their effectiveness could have continued utilizing it in this game. Maybe balancing with it in the mix was too much for the developers of this one. That would not surprise me.

The first game's level of loot was brought back for this Mass Effect but with a stupid blend of ME2 and 3 -- you can only change your gear at loadout stations, which is extremely silly on the open maps. Though if you decide to utilize the crafting, all looted guns and armor pieces are mere vendor trash anyway.

Or would you rather use a Black Widow VII with two mod slots or a crafted Black Widow VII with 5 augments and 4 mod slots? At least there are some cool augments that can even change a weapon's firing mode and projectiles. Also, changing ammo powers to be consumables only resulted in me never using them.

Explore a puddle-deep ocean

Mass Effect: Andromeda's big theme is exploration -- you are in a whole new galaxy after all. I think the aspect falls a bit flat, however, as I did not find much interesting things to explore. The new species -- the Angara, Kett, and Remnant -- turned out to be bland, although the Remnant vaults at least were cool to clear.

Heleus, the only star cluster you visit in Andromeda (since no mass relays), has as many planets as the whole Milky Way galaxy in the previous games but they have almost non-existent amount of lore written for them. Their descriptions are nearly always short and in style of "Yup, it is a gas giant."

None of the planets you get to visit have day/night cycles. Elaaden is confirmed to not even have one, which would mean it is tidally locked to the system's star. However, the planet appears to be orbiting a gas giant. I wonder if it is possible to be a moon and still be have the same side always facing the star. And even if it is, why on earth did everyone found their settlements on the side that gets directly blasted by the sun?

There were potentially really cool things too in the game but they either did not have a payoff, like the origin of the angara, or were merely teasers, like the mysterious species that created the Remnant, and the Scourge stuff that chased the species away.

My absolute favorite moment in Mass Effect: Andromeda was during the Ryder Family Secrets quest, when after unlocking the final memory you get to hear the transmissions the Ark Hyperion received from the Milky Way after the Reapers had attacked. (The Andromeda Initiative left the same year ME2 takes place.) Liara's final voice message seriously gave me the chills.

"I fear that the civilization you remember, the people of the Milky Way as you knew, could be gone forever . . . On behalf of the crew of the Normandy SR-2, this is Dr. Liara T'Soni signing off."

Fine crew, weak leader

The crew member loyalty missions returning from ME2 are also of the game's higher quality content. And the crew members themselves are all right too -- better than in ME1 without a doubt. Cora is maybe a bit meek, and Jaal can be odd but definitely has his moments. Vetra and Peebee are fine and Drack is great -- it was good to have a Krogan buddy again. Liam, though . . . why the fuck is he even in the team?

Ryder her/himself really does not belong there either -- at least not as the pathfinder. Ryder lacks that certain natural leader characteristic that protagonists in party-based RPGs usually have. It feels the sole reason anyone follows him/her is due to the happenstance SAM-integration. I was hoping Ryder would grow to the position but even if the game starts to get there a little towards the end, in the epilogue you again get slapped in the face.

You have to choose a representative for the Heleus cluster from the four options the leaders of different factions have picked. No matter whose candidate you choose, the rest three leaders will be terribly upset and rude afterwards. All Ryder's accomplishments are immediately thrown out of the airlock when things are not going their way. I suppose that was the writers' intention but still, Ryder certainly does not command mass respect like Shepard did.

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